March of Paula's army

Alan Hubbard finds that England's women rugby players are matching the men's achievements
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Should England beat Scotland next week and secure rugby union's Grand Slam, doubtless they will celebrate by singing a few bawdy songs, throwing their coach into the bath and doing their best to get blotto in the bar. Ah well, girls will be girls.

It isn't just Matt Dawson's men who will be behaving much like rugby players are expected to behave should success come their way at Murrayfield on Sunday. Twenty- four hours earlier, Paula George will be happy if there is a modest outburst of unladylike horseplay down the road in Edinburgh at Stewart's Melville, where her women's team also take on the Scots in what could be the first leg of an historic double.

"Yeah, we'll be having a few beers and a bit of a knees-up if we win," says the 31-year-old captain and full-back, who hopes to be leading her team to triumph in their own Five Nations Tournament for the second successive year. "Rugby's a bit like that. You train hard, play hard and go out and enjoy yourselves."

Enjoyment did not seem that high on the agenda on a sunny morning at Bisham last week, though, where 45 of England's finest female ruckers and maulers had gathered for their final full-scale preparation. It wasn't for the faint-hearted, on the field or off. "C'mon guys, crouch, sink, hit, two-three-four," came the shouted command as the burly front row thudded their shoulders into the scrum machine, aptly labelled Rhino. When push comes to shove, England's lady forwards are an intimidating bunch and, judging from the liberally sprinkled fruity expletives, there isn't too much they could learn from their male counterparts about the niceties of the game.

Across the park, things were slightly more decorous as the willowy George and the backs practised some impressive running, passing and dummying under the tuition of head coach Peter Kennedy, who shares his duties between the England women and Exeter Chiefs. Like Steve Redfern, ex-Leicester and England, who looks after the forwards, Kennedy admires theendeavour and application of these women in the roughest of team sports. "They are prepared to listen and take things on board," he says. "They are quick learners and always want to do the right thing. They're great to coach."

No one argues any more that rugby shouldn't be a game for girls. It is now one of the two fastestgrowing sporting activities among females, the other being football. And while women's football talks of going professional in 2003, women's rugby, in a way, is already there. "If you like, we're professional with a small 'p'," says the Twickenham-based women's RFU performance director, Carol Isherwood, a former Great Britain captain and the country's top female coach. "We have 35 players on Lottery funding, which means they only need to work part-time." Three of the élite squad are married; one to an Army major, and another has a 15-year-old son. The rest are the usual collection of PE teachers, physios and students. There are two policewomen and a firefighter, and one of the front row works for a brewery. The hooker, Nicky Ponsford, with 42 caps, is an administrator with Sport England.

Nationwide, there are 270 women's teams, including thoseattached to illustrious clubs such as Wasps, Saracens, Harlequins and Richmond, with around 6,000 players. There are half-a-dozen leagues, two cup competitions and 60 youth sections. An active recruitment programme in schools, says Isherwood, will help transform a game that has been essentially middle- class because of its genesis in universities. Meantime, they will be lucky to muster a crowd of more than a few hundred in Edinburgh on Saturday, though in France, where they take women's sport far more seriously, some 4,000 watched them beat the French 24-18. Victories over Spain (31-7) and Wales (51-0) have put England in pole position for the Grand Slam.

The women's game would love a higher profile, though they'll probably stop short of posing topless or spraying on the body paint to get themselves in the public prints. Anyway, scrum caps don't do much for sex appeal and those blood-red lips come by courtesy of Lonsdale gumshields rather than Revlon.

The nearest women's rugby has got to the tabloid treatment came when one of the sport's sponsorsattempted a hard sell with a survey among the players which asked the question: "Who would you most like to snog?" Nicky Jupp, thecentre, who, according to the survey, "at 6ft and a slim size 12 turns the heads with her good looks", said she could not decide between Brad Pitt and Keanu Reeves.

There's a popular misconception that women's rugby is all butch and biceps. There's a flavour of that, but by and large it is a game played, if not always with a degree of elegance, at least with zest and dash. There's the odd broken collarbone and torn ligament, but no history of serious injury in the 20 years women have been playing the game. Isher-wood admits: "Some of the games can be a bit brutal, though there's a place for this with women just as there is with men. You need to be a certain type to play it, but then you do if you are a guy. Basically, what attracts the girls to the game is the same thing that attracts the men."

George agrees. "Physically, I can't think of a harder sport for women. For me it is the most complete sport and I've played all of them, from netball to hockey. Nothing has the same excitement, the same pace, requires you to makedecisions under pressure, or more all-round skills." In the women's game, she is likened to Jeremy Guscott. Fast and flamboyant, she has played everywhere from full-back to flanker for her club, Wasps.

She works one day a week, teaching PE and A-level psychology at a Middlesex school and has an American father, Scottish mother and was born in Wales. A maternal grandmother gives her qualification for England, so there is no question over eligibility. Like most, she was converted to the sport "as a bit of a dare" at university. That was 11 years ago. Now she is about to collect her 40th England cap. "If someone asked me whether there's anything I would like to change in my life, I couldn't think of anything. It may sound strange, but when I play rugby, I'm living my dream."

Comments